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Girls collaborate through STEM Summer Institute to create innovative farming tools and tackle real-world challenges in Middle Tennessee

Girls collaborate through STEM Summer Institute to create innovative farming tools and tackle real-world challenges in Middle Tennessee
Girls collaborate through STEM Summer Institute to create innovative farming tools and tackle real-world challenges in Middle Tennessee
Students pick produce at a local farm

On the first day of summer camp, Naiya Patel ’30 built a watering can. By the end of camp, she and a group of new middle school friends constructed much more as they worked together to engineer solutions for small-scale farmers. That is what Harpeth Hall’s STEM Summer Institute (SSI) is all about.

Established at Harpeth Hall in 2012, the two-week camp brings together middle and high school girls from Middle Tennessee to address real-world challenges by creating, building, and testing their prototypes.

Each summer, girls focus on a different topic to solve. In past years, projects have included creating hand-washing stations for communities in need, designing birthing beds for women at the Lwala Community in Lwala, Kenya, and studying flooding in Middle Tennessee.

Since the program’s founding, over 330 girls from more than 50 different schools have participated, serving its mission of developing girls and young women into the STEM leaders of tomorrow. This past summer, those future STEM leaders focused on designing products to aid small-scale farmers.

Students collaborate on a design project during STEM Summer Institute 2023

Bekah Hassell, Harpeth Hall science teacher and middle school science department chair, said the topic was inspired by more significant problems in the global food system. SSI leaders tasked campers with engineering solutions to address inefficiencies in day-to-day farm operations. The girls’ goal was to utilize technology to reduce the time a particular crop takes to produce and facilitate crop production.

SSI is divided into two groups based on age — middle and high school. In the middle school science classrooms, the younger group worked to invent new farming tool prototypes, displaying creativity and innovation in their designs. With unique names such as the “crop-chop-and-go,” the “stabber seeder,” and the “weed destroyer,” each design was crafted to address challenges small-scale farmers face. Naiya said that her favorite parts of SSI were exploring engineering by solving real-world problems and working with other campers toward a common goal. “I’ve learned to listen to people, good people skills, and building skills,” she said.

Across Souby Lawn in the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab (BBIL), the high school group similarly designed farming gadgets. Camp field trips to The Nashville Food Project’s community garden and West Glow Farm inspired many of the girls as they saw first-hand the common challenges faced on the farms.

Students collaborate on a design during 2023 STEM Summer Institute

“Compared to larger farming companies and corporations, small-scale farms tend to be more regenerative by working with nature and using less fossil fuels because they do not usually have tractors or large harvesting machines,” Mrs. Hassell said. “Food from small-scale farms is usually sold directly to consumers through community-supported agriculture and farmer’s markets, which reduces the distance food must be transported before it gets to someone’s table.”

Some prototype devices the high school girls designed were modified versions of equipment already used by small-scale farms. One group created an improved version of a green bubbler — a machine used to wash greens — by adding a basket and drainage valve. Inspired by vegetable misters at the grocery store, another group built a portable mister attached to a hose that could be used to keep greens and vegetables fresh at farmer’s markets.

By the end of camp, the girls had a greater understanding of what it takes to thoroughly understand an issue and how to address it using their design thinking skills. One can only imagine what they will build next.

— By MC Claverie ’20